The NHL's answer to March Madness is first-round fever, and the temperatures start to rise Wednesday. First-round fever differs from Stanley Cup final anticipation because frequently, by the time you get down to June and the last two teams standing, it really matters only in the markets still competing for the Stanley Cup.
The first round is different. It matters everywhere. It matters because teams are fresher – and that sense of anticipation that has been building all season is at its peak. It matters because every year, the 4-5 match-up in the opening round could be as competitive as a Stanley Cup final – and odds are, more antagonistic, especially when there's history. It matters because fantasy hockey dominates the water-cooler chatter for a few days, and in the first round, everybody's still alive in their playoff pools, everybody's got a chance to win the big prize, or bragging rights.
Usually sane and detached fans suddenly care who scored the empty-netter or earned the second assist on a meaningless, late goal – and wonder how journeymen such as Joel Ward (last year, with the Nashville Predators) or Fernando Pisani (with the Edmonton Oilers in 2006) can, for a brief period, suddenly channel their inner Mike Bossys. And of course, it gives everybody their annual chance to type Chris Kontos's name – and how much fun is that?
First-round fever conjured up two extraordinary hockey series this spring – of interest not because they involve Canadian-based teams, but because of the long-standing rivalries, and the inherent quality of the two teams. Over in the West, it's the Nashville Predators against the Detroit Red Wings; and in the East, it's the much anticipated Battle of Pennsylvania between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers, where the gamesmanship started last week.
All four teams had successful years. All were comfortably over the 100-point threshold. If any of them won the Cup, it wouldn't be a head-scratching result. And yet, two of the four will be one-and-done, eliminated two weeks in, and forced to the accept the bittersweet reality that they played only four to seven more games than the Toronto Maple Leafs or Columbus Blue Jackets. Talk about a kick in the pants.
Nashville rolled the dice this year, adding a trio of players at the trading deadline (Hal Gill and Andrei Kostitsyn from the Montreal Canadiens, Paul Gaustad from the Buffalo Sabres) and then the Preds brought sniper Alexander Radulov back from Russia's Continental Hockey League to further bolster their scoring.
Detroit is Detroit – in the playoffs for the 21st consecutive season and healthy to boot. The Wings know how to win and they've got the injured personnel (Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk) back in place to make another run at a championship.
This is the patently unfair byproduct of the current playoff format, where floundering weak relatives from the Southeast and the Pacific Divisions, respectively, secured the third seeds ahead of more qualified teams from the powerful Central and Atlantic divisions (which for the first time in history, produced four 100-point teams.)
Nashville is the wild card in the whole crazy equation, in the playoffs for the seventh time in the past eight seasons. Last year, it lost in the second round to the Canucks and was the only team to win two road games in Vancouver. It was the Predators' inability to win at home – or to find a way of defending against Ryan Kesler, which ultimately cost them the series in six games.
"When all was said and done last year, when Vancouver shook our hands, everybody in our organization from the coaching staff to the players, we realized we were a lot closer to potentially winning a Cup than even we realized," Predators' coach Barry Trotz said in an interview. "When you realize that, that's an important thing for growth – and it's carried over into this year."
And the fact that they're playing Detroit is good and bad.
"Detroit has done it," said general manager David Poile. "We haven't done it. All I can say is if you're going to be the best team, you've got to beat everybody. Detroit has been the gold standard since we got into the league. They're the team, for our fans and for our players. It's always Detroit. If it has to be Detroit in the first round, and we're going to win, why not start with Detroit?"
Why not? It's first-round fever, after all. Catch it on a TV screen near you.